Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Friday, January 22, 2021

The mental walkabout

I don't know about you, but I have a real problem with my mind wandering.

It's not a new thing.  I can remember getting grief for daydreaming back when I was in grade school.  I'd be sitting in class, trying my damndest to concentrate on transitive verbs or the Franco-Prussian War or whatnot, but my gaze would drift off to some point in the middle distance, my auditory processing centers would switch from "external input" to "internal input" mode, and in under a minute I'd be out in interstellar space or roaming around Valhalla with Odin and the Boys or rowing a boat down the Amazon River.

Until the teacher would interrupt my reverie with some irrelevant comment like, "Gordon!  Pay attention!  Why don't you tell us how to find x in the equation 5x - 9 = 36?"  I was usually able to refrain from saying what came to mind, namely, that she was the one who lost x in the first place and it was hardly my responsibility to find it, but I usually was able to get myself together enough to take a shot at playing along and giving her a real answer.

I never outgrew the tendency (either to daydreaming or to giving authority figures sarcastic retorts).  It plagued me all through college and beyond, and during my teaching career I remember dreading faculty meetings because I knew that five minutes in I'd be doodling on the agenda despite my vain attempt to be a Good Boy and pay attention.  It's part of how I developed my own teaching style; a mentor teacher told me early along that teaching was 25% content knowledge and 75% theater, and I took that to heart.  I tried to lecture in a way that kept students wondering what the hell I was going to say or do next, because I know that's about the only thing that kept me engaged when I was sitting in the student's desk and someone else was in front of the room.

One amusing case in point -- Dr. Cusimano, who taught a British History elective I took as a senior in college.  He was notorious for working puns and jokes into his lectures, and doing it so smoothly and with such a straight face that if you weren't paying attention, it could slip right past you.  I recall early in the course, when he was talking about the fall of the Roman Empire, Dr. Cusimano said, "During that time, what was left of the Roman Empire was invaded by a series of Germanic tribal leaders -- there was Alaric, King of the Visigoths; Gunderic, King of the Vandals; Oscar Mayer, King of the Franks..."

I'd bet cold hard cash there were students in the class who wrote that down and only erased it when one by one, their classmates caught on and started laughing.

I never daydreamed in Dr. Cusimano's class.

Edward Harrison May, Daydreaming (1876) [Image is in the Public Domain]

Anyhow, all of this comes up because of a study out of the University of California - Berkeley that appeared this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  Entitled, "Distinct Electrophysiological Signatures of Task-Unrelated and Dynamic Thoughts," by Julia W. Y. Kam, Zachary C. Irving, Caitlin Mills, Shawn Patel, Alison Gopnik, and Robert T. Knight, this paper takes the fascinating angle of analyzing the electroencephalogram (EEG) output of test subjects when focused on the task at hand, when focusing on something unrelated, or when simply wandering from topic to topic -- what the authors call "dynamic thought," like much of the game of random free association that my brain spends a significant portion of its time in.

The authors write:

Humans spend much of their lives engaging with their internal train of thoughts.  Traditionally, research focused on whether or not these thoughts are related to ongoing tasks, and has identified reliable and distinct behavioral and neural correlates of task-unrelated and task-related thought.  A recent theoretical framework highlighted a different aspect of thinking—how it dynamically moves between topics.  However, the neural correlates of such thought dynamics are unknown. The current study aimed to determine the electrophysiological signatures of these dynamics by recording electroencephalogram (EEG) while participants performed an attention task and periodically answered thought-sampling questions about whether their thoughts were 1) task-unrelated, 2) freely moving, 3) deliberately constrained, and 4) automatically constrained...  Our findings indicate distinct electrophysiological patterns associated with task-unrelated and dynamic thoughts, suggesting these neural measures capture the heterogeneity of our ongoing thoughts.

"If you focus all the time on your goals, you can miss important information," said study co-author Zachary Irving, in an interview with Science Direct.  "And so, having a free-association thought process that randomly generates memories and imaginative experiences can lead you to new ideas and insights."

Yeah, someone should have told my elementary school teachers that.

"Babies' and young children's minds seem to wander constantly, and so we wondered what functions that might serve," said co-author Allison Gopnik.  "Our paper suggests mind-wandering is as much a positive feature of cognition as a quirk and explains something we all experience."

So my tendency to daydream might be a feature, not a bug.  Still, it can be inconvenient at times.  I know there are a lot of things that would be a hell of a lot easier if I could at least control it, like when I'm reading something that's difficult going but that I honestly want to pay attention to and understand.  Even when my intention is to concentrate, it usually doesn't take long for me to realize that my eyes are still tracking across the lines, my fingers are turning pages, but I stopped taking anything in four pages ago and since that time have been imagining what it'd be like to pilot a spaceship through the Great Red Spot.  Then I have to go back and determine when my brain went AWOL -- and start over from there until the next time I go on mental walkabout.

I guess there's one advantage to being an inveterate daydreamer; it's how I come up with a lot of the plots to my novels.  Sometimes my internal imaginary worlds are more vivid than the real world.  However, I do need to re-enter the real world at least long enough to get the story down on paper, and not end up being too distracted to write down the idea I came up with while I was distracted last time.

In any case, I guess I'd better wrap this up, because I'm about at the limits of my concentration.  I'd like to finish this post before my brain goes on walkies and I end up staring out of my office window and wondering if there's life on Proxima Centauri b.  Which I guess is an interesting enough topic, but hardly the one at hand.


I'm always amazed by the resilience we humans can sometimes show.  Knocked down again and again, in circumstances that "adverse" doesn't even begin to describe, we rise above and move beyond, sometimes accomplishing great things despite catastrophic setbacks.

In Why Fish Don't Exist: A Story of Love, Loss, and the Hidden Order of Life, journalist Lulu Miller looks at the life of David Starr Jordan, a taxonomist whose fascination with aquatic life led him to the discovery of a fifth of the species of fish known in his day.  But to say the man had bad luck is a ridiculous understatement.  He lost his collections, drawings, and notes repeatedly, first to lightning, then to fire, and finally and catastrophically to the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, which shattered just about every specimen bottle he had.

But Jordan refused to give up.  After the earthquake he set about rebuilding one more time, becoming the founding president of Stanford University and living and working until his death in 1931 at the age of eighty.  Miller's biography of Jordan looks at his scientific achievements and incredible tenacity -- but doesn't shy away from his darker side as an early proponent of eugenics, and the allegations that he might have been complicit in the coverup of a murder.

She paints a picture of a complex, fascinating man, and her vivid writing style brings him and the world he lived in to life.  If you are looking for a wonderful biography, give Why Fish Don't Exist a read.  You won't be able to put it down.

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]

1 comment:

  1. I'm exactly the same! At school I just used to constantly daydream all the time. Indeed, for the most part, going to school served absolutely no purpose for me. Really, the only times I ever learnt anything was by reading up on the subject. And I'm still the same now, a constant stream of thoughts going through my head and an inability to listen to people. I'm much better at reading though -- perhaps because I can pause at any time.